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December 24, 2018
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Vietnam sidewalk eateries with street food in the eyes of the international newspapers

According to The Guardian, although the number is not small but most sidewalk eateries in Vietnam are not registered in business with the local government.

The informal business sector

Everyday, Trang’s family wakes up and plans for lunch from 6:00 AM. They started by preparing fried chicken with chili salt, the main dish of the lunch shop that her family has built and developed in 3 decades in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

In the kitchen of the family, every day, beside rice, vegetable soup…, they prepare at least 15 different dishes. About 11:00 AM, they moved the food to the ground floor with a pulley system. After that, the whole family walked over 100 meters to the corner of street and set up a kios on the sidewalk under the shade, next to a substation.

During the next 2 hours, they welcomed about 150 guests or dining. Their customers are diverse, from office staffs to motorbike taxi drivers. Price for each set of rice and some dishes is 30,000 VND.

Trang’s street food shop is just one of many sidewalk eateries in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, 11% of the working people are street vendors. About 51% of city working people do informal work.

The sidewalk eateries in Vietnam, although occupying a big number, but most of them are not registered business with local government. Many eateries cannot register, because they do not know whether their income exceeds the standard threshold. A report by the International Labor Office of the United Nations (UN) in 2014 estimated that 78% of household’s shops in Vietnam operate illegally.

Mrs. Le Thi Lang prepares an average of 15 fried chickens with chili salt a day. Photo Guardian
Mrs. Le Thi Lang prepares an average of 15 fried chickens with chili salt a day. Photo Guardian

The result of unemployment

Street food in Vietnam is not just a part of culture. It is also a culinary feature that is imitated and replicated in the West. Ho Chi Minh City owns a tourism industry helping Westerners experience the best of food. In addition, a series of YouTube videos and English blogs provide tips on street food in Vietnam.

However, in the context of luxury shops and shopping malls appear more and more, it is easy to forget about the fact that sidewalk eateries are the result of the lack of business opportunities, the scarcity of employment opportunities in Vietnam as well.

According to Lisa Barthelmes, a PhD student at the German Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, “the economic liberalization reform of Vietnam in the mid-1980s aims to build a modern nation. Thus, sidewalks shops in urban areas are perceived as “a clear manifestation of backwardness.”

However, 30 years later, this type of business is still very popular.

Trang's family prepares raw materials for lunch. Photo Guardian
Trang’s family prepares raw materials for lunch. Photo Guardian

The three-tier system of street vendors

The challenges of earning a livelihood through an informal economy are not uniform for all street vendors. People who are familiar with it say that, unofficially, it can be considered a three-tier system.

The lowest tier is the mobile carrying basket only sell one item. They carry their products on their backs and go around the city. At the same time, they are also often the migrants from rural to urban struggling to earn a living with little income.

The second tier consists of a group with no fixed storefront. However, they usually sell at a fixed point and serve a variety of different dishes. On the third tier are the fixed shop, usually of people who live perennial in cities. They pay to rent the shop or own that space.

For the Trang’s family, business on the second tier brings them income above the national benchmark. After deducting expenses, they earn more than VND 2 millions per day, far exceeding the per capita income of Vietnam (below $ 2,000 per year). That income is enough to hire a new employee and open a noodle shop in the near future.

Ms. Thao, 31 years old, has been helping her family since she was eight, sharing proudly: “Of course, we are proud of people know about our food. I studied business administration and was thinking of working in the hotel. However, I like the family aspect of this business type and the interactions with people. I cannot imagine I am working in an office. “

Le Thi Lang, 39 years old, is a street vendor on the lowest tier. She sells pork vermicelli soup, cost 15,000 VND / bowl. Her clients range from entrepreneurs to waiter. The loyal customers were squatting and eating bowls of pork vermicelli on plastic chairs behind a bus stop.

Huynh Hoa, a seller of barbecue dishes in HCMC. Photo Guardian
Huynh Hoa, a seller of barbecue dishes in HCMC. Photo Guardian

The risks of sidewalk eateries

It can be said, the business of Lang brought good income, but extremely risky. Thanks to serving popular food in crowded areas, Lang sells about 200 bowls a day, earning 1.6 million dong of interest.

However, Lang shares, the continuous sales, and constantly moving the selling places make her tired. She often fears being expelled from her life. That is also part of why Lang refused to provide the full name when interviewed. In the times of moving to new places, the money earned also dropped. “I can not sell to be able to break even, because moving takes a lot of time,” Lang said.

Lang’s situation is the opposite of Huynh Hoa, a grilled rice paper seller on the pavement at Co Giang Street, District 1, HCMC. His income is about 500,000 VND per day, much lower than Lang. He have to provide free things like tissues, water or deliveries, to make the eatery different and attract customers.

However, with his fixed eatery, he can open the shop 7 days a week with less risk. In contrast, it is said that a fixed shop like Hoa’s eatery is considered more superior than Lang – a hawker, though she earns more money.

Ms. Lang prepares food to sell. Photo Guardian
Ms. Lang prepares food to sell. Photo Guardian

The 2014 report on the workforce shows that the unemployment rate is stable, despite the “low level of economic growth.” This rate comes from “workers have to work to support themselves and their families, including low and instable income and in the informal sector.”

The income potential, risk and status of business households in sidewalk shops in HCMC are not the same. However, the biggest manifestation of the insiders’ feelings about their work comes from the question of whether they want their children to follow them or not.

Vietnam sidewalk eateries with street food in the eyes of the international newspapers
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